Gig Economy Project – ‘A middle finger to the apps’: UK sees historic riders’ strike

Powerful grassroots-organised strike saw customers complaining they couldn’t access the app and Deliveroo’s ‘dark kitchens’ shutdown.

The Gig Economy Project is a BRAVE NEW EUROPE media network for gig workers in Europe. Click here to find out more and click here to get the weekly newsletter.

FOOD delivery couriers in the UK organised a strike on Friday [2 February] which is being talked about as one of the most powerful in the history of the sector. 

Riders from all of the big restaurant delivery platforms in the UK – Uber Eats, Deliveroo, Just Eat and Stuart Delivery – took action from 5-10pm in a grassroots strike, over what organisers describe as “appalling working conditions”. 

As news of the strike, which was originally set to take place in a few areas of London, spread around WhatsApp groups and social media, more and more groups of riders committed to joining the action. On the day of the strike, at least 90 locations in London saw strike action, while a motorcade took place in Brighton, restaurants were shutdown in Liverpool and there was protests in Bath and Glasgow.

Perhaps even more remarkably, the participation in the strike was so high in some areas that customers were tweeting that they couldn’t order deliveries on the apps and Deliveroo had to post a ‘we’ll be back to normal soon’ message. A video of a McDonald’s shows the restaurant over-flowing with undelivered orders, while there have been several reports of pickets shutting down ‘Deliveroo Editions’ dark kitchens, which provide delivery-only food. 

Shaf Hussain, a veteran London rider for Uber Eats and Deliveroo, told the Gig Economy Project that he believes that it “was the most impactful strike that there’s been in this industry.”

“I’ve been on plenty of strikes before, I’ve seen orders piling up on shelfs before in specific restaurants, but the difference with this one is it wasn’t one or two restaurants, it was loads of restaurants,” he says. 

“It was like fireworks night: you go up on a high-rise and look out over London and you see fireworks from all over the city lightening it up. That’s the best way to think about this strike.”

During the strike, Hussain, who is chair of the IWGB union’s couriers & logistics branch, tweeted pictures of the Uber Eats app showing the platform offering pay rates for one or two deliveries which were equivalent to what he has typically been earning for a whole day, due to the problem’s the company was having in getting riders to work. 

Hussain says that the disruption to the apps led restaurants to pursue more old-fashioned methods to break the strike.

“A friend of mine said a restaurant offered him £50 in cash to take some deliveries, because orders after orders after orders were piling up,” he says.

The strike call was initiated by a Brazilian group of riders operating through an Instagram account called ‘DeliveryJobUK’, and they put out a statement before the strike making their motivations clear. 

“This demonstration is about the appalling working conditions being imposed upon us,” the statement reads. “The cost of living globally is on a relentless rise, yet, astonishingly, our pay for work is on a continuous decline. Food delivery companies are exploiting workers mercilessly. We’ve been without any sort of wage adjustment for the task we complete for four long years. Our incentives have been stripped away; promotions are a thing of the past…Delivery charges for customers soar, whilst our remuneration dwindles.”

Hussain, who has been a rider for seven years, says that the huge number of riders participating in the action was because “people are fed up”. 

“Seven years ago I signed up for Deliveroo and would make anywhere between £10-17 an hour. I would finish one delivery and would be able to get another one straight away.

“Now, the base line for a Deliveroo delivery is just £2.90, and it’s really hard to get jobs, because the apps over-populate the workforce. That makes them money, because if one of us doesn’t accept the job someone else will. But for us, the couriers, we all make less.”

Hussain visited Brixton, London Bridge and Brick Lane during Friday’s strike, describing a “mix of emotions” among the riders.

“There was anger at the apps, but there was also a party atmosphere, because we were celebrating that we are capable of coming together, united under one banner, to say: here is a middle finger to the apps, we’re not standing for this anymore, enough is enough!”

Another strike is scheduled for next Friday in at least East London and Hussain is hopeful that this is just the start. 

“One of the biggest issues with working as a courier is the isolation. You are effectively on your own 12 hours a day, the only interaction you have is a handover with a restaurant or a customer, that’s it,” he says. 

“But this strike gives you a different perspective on it: there are riders around you, there are people that will unite with you and you can socialise with and where riders can be all united and everyone thinks the same way.”

“The strike knocked over the app”

James Farrar, founder and director of Worker Info Exchange (WIX), an advocacy organisation for platform workers’ rights, was present for the duration of the strike in Brick Lane, the famous street in London’s East End. 

“The strike knocked over the app, and that’s amazing to see,” Farrar, who was previously an Uber ridehail driver, says. 

“I’ve been involved in a few strikes as an Uber driver and an organiser of drivers, and we’ve never seen a visible response to the strike like that on the app before.”

A big reason for the strikes success was the picketing of restaurants at key locations, and Brick Lane was no different. Farrar says that no deliveries went out from the historic street for the duration of the strike, and when one rider sought to do a delivery the picket convinced him not to in “an insistent but peaceful way”. 

Despite the peaceful approach of the riders, there was a brief scare on Brick Lane when someone from one of the restaurants brought a machete out onto the street in an attempt to scare away the striking riders. Thankfully calm was restored and the riders were not perturbed by the incident, but Farrar blames a letter from Deliveroo to its restaurant partners about the strike for heightening tensions. 

The letter said restaurants should beware of “loitering” and “anti-social behaviour”, warning that striking riders could be “offboarded”, and encouraged restaurants to consider calling the police. 

“It was an outrageous letter designed to pit independent restaurants against riders and to intimidate them,” Farrar says. “It failed, because 99 per cent of the restaurants were absolutely fine with the strike.”

Farrar believes that a big reason for the strikes success was the “hyper-local” way in which it was organised. 

“If you lived around Brick Lane and wanted to order a curry from Brick Lane, you weren’t getting it last night,” he says. “Generally, people want to order food from nearby because if it’s further away it will be cold by the time it gets to you. 

“Obviously the strike was at scale and that’s a big thing, but it’s crucial that it was organised and targeted locally.”

As for the future, the WIX director believes that the only way the platforms are going to be able to prevent actions like this happening again is by raising pay. 

“The fact is there’s too many people waiting around for too little work, at declining rates,” he says. 

“You can see the problem in Deliveroo’s annual accounts. The number of deliveries has gone down, but the value of the order basket has gone up. So there’s less work for riders, but while the platforms are earning more per delivery, they’re increasing their margins and squeezing pay rates.

“Until they address that and give the riders a decent value proposition to go out and earn money, they are going to have some very serious problems.”

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